Myanmar on Thursday freed 155 Chinese nationals jailed last week for illegal logging, drawing protests from democracy advocates who said that too few political prisoners had been included in the general amnesty under which the Chinese were freed.
The 155, of whom 153 had been handed life terms, were among 6,966 prisoners released by Myanmar on July 30 in a presidential amnesty, and were sentenced last week after six months in detention following their arrest in January in Myanmar’s Kachin state near the border with China.
Australians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis were also among those freed, Deputy Director of the Kachin State Prisons Department Win Naing Lin told RFA’s Myanmar Service, calling the releases a gesture of international goodwill and citing “requests made to the government for an amnesty.”
Around 11 political prisoners, including several journalists, were included in the release, activist groups helping the prisoners’ families said, though scores may still remain behind bars.
More should now be freed, Aung Moe Kyaw of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.
“If the government can free these foreign nationals who are illegally exploiting and robbing our natural resources, we want to ask why they can’t release people of conscience who are working for reforms in the interests of the country,” Aung Moe Kyaw said.
“Good people are still in jail,” agreed Thein Than Oo, a former political prisoner now working as a lawyer.
“We don’t welcome this event," he said. "There’s no reason to welcome it or to rejoice in it.”
'All should be freed'
One of those released in Thursday’s amnesty, reporter Minn Wathan of the Midday Sun Journal, said that he and others were informed of their release only shortly before they were freed.
“I learned about it just before 6:30 this morning,” he said, adding, “They didn’t tell us why we were being released.”
“Altogether, 11 of us were freed,” Minn Wathan said.
“If they really want to show support or have reforms, they should free all political prisoners, students, and activists they have detained,” he said.
Rights group Amnesty International meanwhile welcomed the release in a statement Thursday.
“We are delighted that these 11 men can now walk free and return to their families, even if nothing can make up for the ordeal they have had to go through,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“But the fact remains that none of them should have been imprisoned in the first place,” Abbott said.
Loggers' release criticized
Many in Myanmar criticized Thursday’s release of the Chinese loggers, calling the move “surprising” and an attempt to placate China, which had pushed for the workers’ release.
Myanmar banned timber exports last year, but analysts say Chinese loggers often make deals with local warlords, and in some cases with local Myanmar army officers, to illegally ship timber across the border into China’s Yunnan province.
“It is sad that all 155 Chinese illegal loggers, who robbed our precious timber and were sentenced just a week ago, are now treated with great care and respect and are being freed in a grand gesture,” said former political prisoner Tun Kyi.
“Do we now have different sets of laws for our own citizens and for Chinese nationals?”
Reported by Wai Mar Thun and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Richard Finney